From the Director





by Rex Parker, Director

Help Make 2017 a Great Year for Astronomy! To help improve members’ direct access to astronomy, we’ve been updating and improving the hardware and software at our observatory at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ. The latest changes include installation of Software Bisque’s TheSkyX Professional Edition on the computers running the two Paramount ME equatorial mounts. These mounts carry several excellent telescopes: (1) 14” Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope piggybacked with a 5” refractor equipped with Mallincam video camera; and (2) the historic Hastings 5.25” refractor tandem-mounted with a 10” Takahashi Mewlon Dahl-Kirkham Cassegrain telescope. TheSkyX is a significant upgrade improving the utility and user interface of the current v6 of TheSky software, and offering many more databases. It also integrates camera control so that members can work with their own CCD or DSLR cameras or with the club’s SBIG ST-10 CCD camera. An interesting and very helpful feature of TheSkyX software is simulation mode, where the operation of the telescope mount or CCD camera, guider, or any other attached equipment can be simulated. This is a great way to learn! At the January regular meeting and the next Board meeting we will discuss the best and lowest cost ways for members to obtain a personal copy of TheSkyX to install on home computer to help with learning the software and getting ready to operate the observatory.

Screenshot of the TheSkyX showing the star map and user interface.

Screenshot of the TheSkyX showing the star map and user interface.

All AAAP members in good standing are entitled to use the observatory whenever a “keyholder” is present. Even better, becoming a keyholder yourself brings you 24/7 access to the Observatory. Please contact Observatory Chair Dave Skitt or me if you’re interested in learning more about the equipment or to join training sessions and obtain your own access key.

Beyond the observatory, upcoming AAAP events for this year will include field trips to regional astronomy venues, night sky refresher sessions at the NJ State Museum Planetarium, and astronomy outreach events at local schools and organizations. For those of you who know someone fortunate enough to receive a new astronomy-related item over the holidays (or whenever), we’re considering holding a “How to Use that New Telescope” event this winter at the Planetarium. Please let me or Bill Murray know if you think this idea is worthwhile. Finally, we all know and love the AAAP for its ongoing series of astronomy lecture presentations held at the main meeting each 2nd Tues of the month at Peyton Hall. This year will continue that tradition – see Ira’s article in this issue of Sidereal Times for information about the January 10 guest speaker.

Announcement: AAAP Board meeting. The next Board of Trustees meeting will be held Wed Jan 18. Board and committee members are urged to participate, and any member interested in the future directions of the club is welcome to attend. Please send me a note if you plan to attend. Time & place: Wed Jan 18 at 7:30pm, Dome Room, Peyton Hall (2nd floor), Princeton Univ.



One of my first “practice processing” images from Star Shadows Remote Observatory at Cerro Tololo in the Chilean Andes. NGC-1512 is a barred spiral galaxy about 40 million light-years away in the constellation Horologium, which we never see from New Jersey as it’s below the horizon.

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‘Explosions in the sky’ – January 10, 2017 Lecture

by Ira Polans, Program Chair

We begin the New Year with a talk on “Explosions in the sky” by Dr. Ondrej Pejcha of Princeton University on January 10th at 7:30 PM in Peyton Hall on the Princeton University campus.
The appearance of “new stars” in the sky has captivated the imagination of astronomers for centuries. The interest in transient brightenings has increased tremendously in the past decade thanks to modern time-domain surveys. The wealth of new data has unraveled unexpected diversity in previously known phenomena such as the deaths of massive stars, and produced discoveries of many new classes of transients. The talk will discuss some of the extreme conditions and open questions posed by the menagerie of astronomical explosions.

His interests in time-domain astronomy started during high school when he was regularly observing variable stars visually and later with a CCD camera. After undergraduate studies in theoretical physics at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, he obtained his PhD in astronomy at the Ohio State University in 2013. Since 2013, He’s been a NASA Hubble Fellow and later Lyman Spitzer Jr. Fellow at Princeton University.

Prior to the meeting there will be a meet-the-speaker dinner at 6PM at Winberie’s in Palmer Square. If you’re interested in attending please contact no later than noon on January 10.

We hope you join us for what will be an informative and interesting talk! You are encouraged to invite interested friends and family to the talk.

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Minutes of the December 13, 2016 AAAP Meeting

by James Poinsett, Secretary

Minutes of the December 2016 Meeting of the AAAP
• Director Rex called the meeting to order
• Ira introduced the speaker for the evening, Dr. Eric Gawiser from Rutgers University. His lecture was titled “The other 95%, Revealing the Dark Universe”.
• After a short break the meeting resumed with a re-cap of events from 2016.
    o Outstanding public outreach
    o Great speaker programs
    o Upgrades at the observatory
    o Improved website
    o Night Sky refresher classes
    o Third Mercury transit in 3 centuries for the HB Refractor
    o A successful Jersey StarQuest
    o Fate of the Jenny Jump Observatory
    o RIP Gene Ramsey
• Updated Sky10 has been installed on one computer so far, minor issues are being worked out.
• The Paramount mount has been cleaned and lubed and is working excellently.
• The ladder for the Mewlon scope is in place and works well.
• The website is good, always looking for new ideas. Online registration and payment is being set up.
• A discussion was held on reaching members and non-members.
• A date was proposed for the next board meeting, an email will circulate and a decision will be made.
• It is time to put In place a plan for the Jenny Jump observatory and execute it.
• John Church talked about the August 21st solar eclipse. A site has been picked in Oregon, near the town of Monmouth. If you plan on going contact John for details on the site.
• There are still a couple of openings for speakers for the rest of the year, contact the program committee if you have any suggestions.
• A brief discussion was held on a possible field trip to view a launch from the Wallops launch center in Virginia.
• Meeting was adjourned.

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The Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by John Church

As many club members are already aware, we have arranged for a prime viewing site in Oregon for this year’s total solar eclipse. Totality will last for slightly over 2 minutes, beginning shortly after 10 am PDT, and the weather is expected to be good. The site is on private property, and those who wish to participate will be given detailed directions. Members are kindly asked to not distribute this information on the Internet.

Our Assistant Director, Larry Kane, has arranged for a block of rooms in the area. Please contact Larry directly for further information. Accommodations are already very difficult to arrange, so if you are interested, you should act quickly.

There is also the good possibility that the property owner will allow camping. As soon as members who may choose this option have made firm plans, please contact this writer so that the owner can be contacted for full permission.

The nearest large airport is in Portland, Oregon. For those who want to fly, we suggest that you consider making reservations in the near future, as Oregon is going to be a popular eclipse destination.

This promises to be a spectacular event. The writer has been fortunate to have seen two total solar eclipses already; they leave overwhelming impressions that will never be forgotten. Photos from these eclipses are included here.

On no other occasion does one so directly experience the immense power of the motions of astronomical objects. Please join us if you can.

Posted in January 2017, Sidereal Times | Tagged , | 2 Comments

tabula rasa

by Theodore R Frimet

A photon, neutrino and graviton walk into a bar…

A photon, neutrino, and a graviton walk into a bar. Bartender asks, what’s with the graviton? The photon says, “let me explain”. The neutrino interrupts, and says, “Big Bang”.

The above joke has sufficient cognitive dissonance to explain all that follows. I am not so much inclined to produce new theory or hypothesis as I am set to undo some or all of what has been taught, recently, as cosmological theory. Although not a main philosophic tenet of John Locke, the expenditure of millions of dollars and commitment of close to a thousand educated minds in the pursuit of dark energy, and dark matter, may make an insensible impression upon those that simply do not know better. As a foundation of new observations will inevitably be laid down for future generations, now is time to express some thought on the matter. I think I know what dark energy is. Or at the least, you and I may have a meeting of the minds, in the few paragraphs that follow, and elucidate a new path.

So that we all know where the basis of my thought comes from, I’d like to share some news that might be disturbing to some readers. Having been fortunate enough to be introduced to the writings of Brian Greene, by a current AAAP member (thank you, and the wife for clearing out the bookshelf !) I find that Mr. Greene’s second book, “The Fabric of the Cosmos”, 2004 published by Random House, to be a much better read than, “The Elegant Universe”, 1999, published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. More to the point, I am only up to page 156 of the latter, so any hidden references to superstrings or hidden dimensions not so noted, are more likely rooted in the former. Not shocked ? It isn’t the page count that I thought would muster up your gall, however, the thought that the second was better than the first might get your grog into gear.

Ah, yes. The big bang. Or as one of our favorite cable TV shows might indicate, that there was not much of a bang. Unless you factor in the reading of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) and the derived plotting of baryonic acoustic oscillations. I swear to you, that during our last AAAP lecture on dark matter, dark energy, I truly believe that there is a missing amplitude curve to the BAO plot. Another hand-clap, if you must. But then, I digress, or rather regress into more of religious belief system, rather than one of science. On the face of it, it doesn’t appear rational, does it? However then, even Locke started his philosophical trendiness by first absorbing into his reality, that which was canonized. So, permit me the rather obvious treat of thinking as a member of the mid 1600’s and creating an artifact of illusion. I think modern science now calls this a hypothesis. Yes. The missing hand clap of genesis.

I was awed by Greene’s notion of less than 20 pounds of stuff being sufficiently expanded to fill the contents of our universe. I had already known and understood what it meant for an outer expanding bubble to, hold in place, and at the same time, move apart, its constituents on its surface. And much of what was written, I found totally enjoyable. But the sense of it, that so little genesis was needed to fill the void, was exciting to read and appreciate. I must render to you an apology, now and then. I am uncertain as to where, and when I read this in his book. But it does, inevitably come to mind, that the author of The Fabric of the Cosmos, is where the citation lay, in print, at the least. And it sparked an idea.

I shared this thought with our last AAAP speaker, and we all got a chuckle out of what could be the next venue for a movie. So, what follows is borrowed, from what I’ve read, and begged, from my peers, so that we might accomplish two things. The first being a source of entertainment. This being so, because so much of what follows that passes as cosmology is conjecture, and adding my thoughts, most certainly creates more of a movie event, than say, “real science”. And the second being, that as I will probably never win a big lottery, that the presentation of some liberal thought, could possibly link up, now or in the future, with solid observational evidence. Some look for Big Foot; I’d say I am looking for a cosmic string left over from before nucleosynthesis. Because if that’s possible, heck – what follows could be more than just feasible.

Accepted into the nomenclature of the big bang, is the hot and dense nature of our beginnings. And that in the absence of early matter coalescing into nuclei, and hydrogen, how even light could not escape the density of such extremes. Ah, but the wild card of neutrinos calls and beckons me. Like the musings of Khan, in a Star Trek episode, where he paraphrases Melville’s Moby Dick, “He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him!” If you have never read Melville, I encourage you to do so. It took me quite a while, and I must apologize to Melville, as I don’t remember quoting him as much as I recall a quote or few from the screen writers of our beloved Star Trek. On to neutrinos…

Neutrinos come forth, spewing into the void of the early universe, and not being massless, as they approach the speed of light, continue to increase in mass. Or if you prefer, they increase in energy – so that their velocity remains bound to the newest principle born of our cosmos, the limiting speed of light. And to make a poor reference to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, a shift into motion slows down the clock of the matter at hand. By the time nucleosynthesis takes place, in Planck time, the clocks of the inner bang are not the same of the clocks of our early neutrinos. Let’s take a pause, here. Because some of you dear readers are asking the question, is our little fermion friend, shifting between tau, muon, and electron, in space-time, or are you calling an early bluff to my prose?

We have been told that in the birth of the bang, there were the consequences of quantum jitters that formed the basis of baryonic distribution in our developing universe. Here is where I go off the proverbial deep edge. Take a breath, as we are diving into the shallow end of the pool. This is not for the feint of hear. Here it is: I disagree. My hypothesis is that the time shifting neutrinos are literally slammed into by a raging photonic pressure wave. It is the very light of creation that was held in place, inescapably by the massive heat. And released, in outward expansion, at light speed, only when the first matter was formed. The dawn of light clock runs faster than the aforementioned neutrinos and hence, my photonic pressure wave crashes into a mass filled universe. Take a second breath. We are going into the deep end, now, my friends…reflections.

Not unlike seeing for yourself on a science show, the effects of a massive laser on a point carbon source and the observational results in a dynamic pressure wave; it doesn’t boggle the mind, in the least to see the way of wave interference, and reflection. And I postulate that our photonic pressure wave, doesn’t skip like a stone on the surface of neutrinos. They combine wave events. Something very unlikely, I’d admit. But this is where all the fun is at. Because just as 20 or so pounds of mass expands into something that is too great to imagine, we may have, at its crux, the energy relevant to what is needed, by cubic meter in the void, to accelerate the expansion of the universe. Now onto the reflection, and why jitters weren’t needed in early creation, until now…

Most of us have read, or have heard of the holographic theory. What follows isn’t that theory, however is inspired by it. A third breath, as we get pulled out of the water. Someone get ready with to do some CPR…

Each cosmic collision results in a point oscillation in reverse flight into an ever expanding cone to the core of the bang. The terminus of the cone bears down on our early matter synthesis with quantum jitters that were the result of neutrino transformations, and the varying degrees of space time distortion experienced by our earliest travelers reflecting back from the void. Neutrinos created the map of baryonic distribution. We read that as long as a science cannot probe to the finest of the imperfections of space time, some hypotheses are safe. For the moment at least. And in the colloquial nomenclature of football, I am doing a “hail Mary” pass, and will wait out until we can map the early universe with neutrino emissions, as has been done, for the cosmic background radiation.

I pray that it isn’t too narcissistic of me to suggest, that I have just broom swept out the proverbial pigeon droppings, as did two pioneers from Bell Labs…not too long ago, leading to the discovery of the CMB. My near infrared telescope will be ready by February, 2017. I have already anticipated a failure. Despite the real limitations of science, and budget, I haven’t ruled out the dream of a possibility of finding a cosmic string in the night sky. Right now, my tabula rasa (blank slate) is filled and I’ve got much to sleep on. Locke wouldn’t be proud. No doubt, he’d be confused. And we didn’t even get to talk about the graviton as a messenger particle. Perhaps, next time, when the bartender asks his ever recurring question, the graviton, and not the photon or neutrino, will speak for the cosmos.

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So far away…

by Prasad Ganti

“Betelgeuse is 640 million light years away. It is a red giant, and is almost dying”. How do we know this, when it is difficult to find out what is happening in Syria or Russia? After all no one has visited our Sun carrying either a measuring tape or a thermometer. Indirectly measuring the brightness, luminosity and distances of stars and galaxies has been the hallmark of astronomy and astrophysics in the last century or so.

Firstly, it all started with our own planetary system. Ancient Greeks noticed that the ships disappear over the horizon, thereby concluding that the Earth is round. In fact, Eratosthenes found a well in Syene in Southern Egypt, where on June 21, the sun shines vertically all the way down to the bottom. He noticed that this event never happened in Alexandria. He used the difference in shadows cast in these two places on the same day of the year, the distance between Syene and Alexandria which could be measured with a tape, and some geometry to come up with an approximate circumference of the earth.

Aristarchus built on this idea, he said that at the time of half moon, the Earth, the Moon and the Sun must form a right angle triangle. He came up with approximate distance to the Sun. The Moon’s size can be estimated by the time the Moon takes to move through the Earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse. Aristarchus predicted that Earth spun around its axis every twenty four hours. Ancient Hindus had similar views. But, for the next thousand years, the Church ruled claiming that the Earth was flat and at the center of our planetary system. Plunging Europe into dark ages.

Then came the Polish mathematician Copernicus who put Sun at the center of the model. Tyco Brahe, the Dane, took observational astronomy to its pinnacle using his observatory. Kepler took Tyco’s data and came up with his famous three laws of planetary motion. Galileo then used the newly invented optical telescope to observe the skies and more famously the four moons of Jupiter. Newton stood on the shoulders of these giants and came up with his famous law of gravitation.

Using Kepler’s laws and Newton’s law of gravitation, the distances within our solar system (up to Saturn) have been determined. Also, the obits have been accurately mapped out. Followed by Uranus, Neptune and Pluto in the next hundred years or so.

Next, moving out of our solar system, Cepheid variable stars were discovered. Whose brightness waned and waxed. Henrietta Leavitt found a relationship between the period of fluctuation and apparent brightness by collecting data from a group of Cepheids in the Magellanic cloud. A team of astronomers found the distance to one Cepheid. Henrietta’s theory was used to calculate the distances of other Cepheids.

Edwin Hubble had been the first to find Cepheids outside the Milky Way and thereby measure the distance to another Galaxy, namely the Andromeda Galaxy. Finding Cephids in distant galaxies was not possible. They are too faint. Astronomers made an assumption that the brightest star in all the galaxies have the same absolute brightness. By comparing the apparent brightness, a Galaxy’s distance could be measured. These stars are known as standard candles.

Another example of a standard candle is the Supernova. Type 1 supernova occurs when two medium sized stars collapse into each other. The resulting fireworks is uniformly luminous regardless of the galaxy in which it occurs. Type 2 supernova results from a massive star collapsing and forming a neutron star or a black hole. This type is not a good standard candle. Type 1 supernovae are used to measure distances to far off galaxies.

Most of the concepts summarized in this article have been borrowed from the book “The Big Bang” by Simon Singh. An excellent history of astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. So, we don’t really need a tape to measure larger distances!

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compiled by David Kaplan

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

Where Will NASA Go in the Age of Trump?
Two weeks after a presidential election that could have vaulted him to the head of NASA, John Grunsfeld reached across his peanut curry at a small restaurant on the Far West Side of Manhattan, grabbed his notebook and sketched out a plan….more

Rock from Chicxulub Crater. Credit: BBC

Rock from Chicxulub Crater. Credit: BBC

Chicxulub ‘dinosaur’ crater drill project declared a success
The effort to drill into the Chicxulub Crater off the coast of Mexico has been declared an outstanding success. A UK/US-led team has spent the past seven weeks coring into the deep bowl cut out of the Earth’s surface 66 million years ago by the asteroid that hastened the end of the dinosaurs….more

The asteroid impact removed 75% of all life on the planet. - BBC

The asteroid impact removed 75% of all life on the planet. – BBC

Nickel clue to ‘dinosaur killer’ asteroid
Scientists say they have a clue that may enable them to find traces of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs in the very crater it made on impact. This pointer takes the form of a nickel signature in the rocks of the crater that is now buried under ocean sediments in the Gulf of Mexico….more

Credit: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

Credit: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

Black hole ‘swallowed star’, say Queen’s astronomers
Belfast-based astronomers have helped to discover a very rare celestial event – a star being “swallowed” after it passed too close to a black hole. Queen’s University, Belfast, (QUB) was involved in a European project to solve the mystery of an “extraordinarily brilliant” light in a distant galaxy….more

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